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A Push to Back Traditional Chinese Medicine with More Data

December 19, 2014

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal illustrates the movement embarked upon by researchers in China, Europe, and the U.S. to research centuries-old theories from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) on what makes people sick using modern analytical techniques.

iStock_000015960273XSmallAccording to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), disease arises from imbalances in the body due to unhealthy factors in the natural environment and one’s lifestyle. “Traditional Chinese medicine views disease as complete a pattern as possible,” says Jennifer Wan, PhD, a professor in the school of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong who studies TCM. General symptoms like dry mouth or coating on the tongue are signals that certain bodily systems are unharmonized. While these signs may be ignored by Western-trained doctors who focus on more specific ailments, TCM doctors often use these symptoms and patterns as guides for treating patients.

Despite the application of reductionist theory in Western medicine, “one gene or biological marker alone typically doesn’t yield comprehensive understanding of disease,” says Dr. Wan. Consequently, researchers in prestigious universities in China and increasingly in Europe and the U.S. are marrying Western techniques for analyzing complex biological symptoms to the TCM notion of seeing the body as a networked whole by analyzing the interaction of genes or proteins throughout the body as the disease develops.

Experts say that TCM treatments of herbal concoctions could be authenticated and standardized with more scientific study, and could serve as leads for drug development. Such a case is the work of Yale University pharmacology professor Yung-Chi Cheng, PhD, which looks at four-herb combination known as PHY906 for reducing the side effects of chemotherapy. Researchers are studying this for its ability to enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy in patients with colon cancer.

Another promising area of TCM research is the notion of hot and cold syndromes. The philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) recognizes the varying constitutions on the individual level. For instance, people with hot constitutions are prone to fever and inflammation in parts of the body, while others tend to have cold body parts and get chills. Several studies conducted by Shao Li, MD, PhD, Deputy Director of the Bioinformatics Division at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has found variations of bacteria on patient’s tongues depending on whether the patients were identified as hot or cold. These results suggest that some easily detectable and nonspecific symptoms could be clinically useful. Although the work is still in its early stages, it could result in a new direction for TCM research by using the systems biology approach and integrating it with experience gleaned from centuries of TCM patient care, says Dr. Cheng.

With the advancement of technology, researchers believe that eventually a new way can be found to connect Eastern and Western medicine at the molecular and systematic levels. According to Qihe Xu, MD, PhD, a professor of renal medicine at King’s College London, the field of research on TCM must develop standard definitions and ways of measuring TCM syndromes such that the findings are reproducible. Certainly, as traditional Chinese medicine and other alternative therapies gain traction among scientists and clinicians in the Western world, it will provide an impetus to produce more high-quality research in the field of integrative medicine.


To read the full article on Wall Street Journal, click here. An online subscription to WSJ is required.


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